KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future
The Resurgence of New Jersey Igbo Community.
Monday, September 21, 2009
If there was any doubt that Igbo-USA , NJ, Inc. is the only authentic umbrella organization of the Igbo community in New Jersey, that doubt was completely erased on August 29th to 30th 2009 at the Days Inn on Route 22 East, Bridgewater, New Jersey. Igbo-USA Igbo Day outing for 2009 was spectacular, peaceful, reassuring and, yes, reawakening. For one thing, not only was the attendance grand, it was one of the only Igbo events that actually took off on time and its well-lanned program of events took off as planned.
While there has been some joint-state association events under the auspices of Igbo-USA in the past, this was truly an Igbo-event performance based on real contributions of all the Igbo states that make up the largest and longest surviving umbrella Igbo Association in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Before I get to the roles the affiliating states played to make this year’s Igbo event a very successful one, a brief history of the umbrella association is perhaps appropriate here.
Igbo USA, NJ, Inc. was founded in the early 1990s as a unifying body for the then Igbo states and local associations dotting the landscape of New Jersey, New York, and PA. As part of its objectives, Igbo-USA had intentions of unifying various Igbo communities across the United States to help not only its members and the community at large but also the suffering and oppressed Igbo in their ancestral homeland in Nigeria. In 1994 or thereabout, Igbo-USA teamed up with Igbo communities in Houston, Texas and their associations to create what is known today as World Igbo Congress, Inc. (WIC) -- currently under the chairmanship of Joe Nze Eto of Atlanta Igbo Organization, GA.
Over the years through the efforts of members of Igbo-USA and their counterparts in other nations around the globe, World Igbo Congress has made some considerable imprints in the lives of Ndiigbo at home and abroad, the most noticeable being the recognition and public awareness about the plight of ex-Biafran wounded soldiers who have called Oji River their home since the end of the Biafra–Nigeria War nearly 40 years ago. At some point, WIC was instrumental in assisting Ohanaeze, the Igbo apex organization in Nigeria, in crafting submissions to Nigerian constitutional conferences and commissions. WIC has though remained an object of constant criticism by insiders and outsiders for doing nothing or too little to affect the lives of the average Igbo or influence the politics and economics conditions of the homeland.
Like many Igbo organizations home and abroad, Igbo-USA has seen its share of crisis since 2001, which can be delineated in three categories: cold war, war time, and the present-day peace-in-division. The past six years has been the most turbulent in the existence of Igbo-USA. The first two of the six years was characterized by cold war between competing individual interests, those who wanted the head of the then Igbo-USA President, Augustine Uzodike, a two-term survivor of the organization’s leadership elections, and those who wanted him in. Uzodike’s primary problems and hardest critics ironically emanated form his own affiliate state association, the now defunct AESA, or Anambra-Enugu States Association. This was the period of cold war orchestrated by what I can comfortably address as Igbo haters of the worst kind.
While Uzodike, a very effective activist, politician, and strategist survived his last term, the problems that trialed him from his affiliate, spearheaded by those who hated him for their personal reasons, did not go away. The problems were inherited by his successor Ken Igwe, who won his first term by a landslide in spite of efforts made by those who claimed he was just a clone of Uzodike and swore that he would be Igbo-USA President over their dead bodies. Despite the commitment of the critics, Ken Igwe did in fact ascend the presidency of Igbo USA in a highly contest but fair-and-free election held in November 2004.
However despite the clear electoral vicotry, the quest to crush him and his administration did not abet; indeed, it tripled to the point of almost crippling routine community activities. This would form the category of “all-out war” on Igbo-USA by Igbo haters and their Rimi apologists. Ken Igwe, a fine gentleman whom I have known since 1997 -- having served with him when he was the Igbo-USA VP and had joined the race for the Vice Chair of World Igbo Congress but was persuaded by our administration to yield the slot to Chief Austin Egwuonwu, who went on to win the Vice Chair of WIC and later its Chair with the untiring efforts of the then Igbo USA cabinet. Ken Igwe was to spend his first term fighting off Igbo haters. The war against him and Uzodike directly and against NJ Igbo escalated and got uglier, including threatening his professional career.
The then president of Abia Imo States Association of Nigerian in America (AISANA), without consulting the association, joined the then AESA President in an unholy marriage to destabilize the administration of Ken Igwe. Soon, Enugu State Association (ESA) broke away from its previous sister association (AESA), frustrated that the cabals that ran AESA would not give them their due diligence -- their slot of 8 delegates to join in representing their people in Igbo-USA umbrella association and World Igbo Congress. Enugu State Association applied for membership in Igbo-USA as an independent entity and was admitted in accordance with Igbo-USA constitution.
To the cabals at AESA, that was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. They would have none of it; Enugu must be brought back to their fold and control by all means and at all cost! Soon, they would file a lawsuit against Igbo-USA, a lawsuit they failed to answer the hearing. AESA in a protest refused to pay dues to Igbo USA or attend further meetings. After repeated attempts to convince them to do a rethink, their failure comply necessitated lapse in their affiliate status. The desire to fill the vacuum left by Anambra slot in Igbo USA and the raging internal battle in the now defunct AESA caused some respected members of the original Anambra State Association to apply for affiliation as an independent affiliate to Igbo USA. They too were admitted.
While the Anambra battle was raging, the then President of AISANA was lending to his counterpart in what was left of AESA a hand in crippling Igbo USA. He too refused to pay his affiliate dues. Instead, he raised a mob to vote to withdraw AISANA's affiliation from Igbo USA. Members of Abia State Association, partners in the joint bi-state AISANA, wasted no time in filling their own vacuum by applying as an independent state association in Igbo USA, which was also accepted. Like a domino effect, concerned Imo citizens in AISANA begged the leadership to reconsider their decision to pull out of Igbo-USA, but with no one in the leadership was listening or willing to reconsider. They also applied to fill the Imo vacuum left in Igbo-USA.
With the altered configuration of Igbo-USA affiliation, 99.9% of freedom of choice was in place. The Igbo of Delta region were also having their own internal problems, long before Ken Igwe was elected in his first term. The self made king of the Igbo Delta was already on a war path with Ken Igwe for something that was so personal it is too childish to discuss here. This rift was to spill over to an anti-Ken Igwe presidency of Igbo USA, even to the point of trying to stop Nmuika Association from remaining in Igbo USA under Ken Igwe administration. In the end, that wasteful effort also led to fracture Nmuika (Delta) association. One part went with Igbo USA; the other stayed out in the cold, held hostage by the "king."
This was how Ken Igwe’s first administration ended; war, pull outs, refusal to pay dues, and splintering affiliate base as well as withdrawal of Igbo house funds by states and individuals that once committed to the project, and then the lawsuit that cost Igbo USA over $20,000. With the war not over, Ken Igwe was to rescind his earlier commitment to serve only one term and yield his support to Mike Unegbu for the next election as a payback to Unegbu for giving him the support he needed to achieve the landslide in his first election. Ken’s later decision was to create rift between him, Unegbu, and his supporters, but others understood it as a wartime presidential decision that became inevitable. With a negative perception of a close relationship of Unegbu with a man who has caused Igbo-USA and Igbo community the greatest heartache, Ken Igwe’s supporters opined that it was too risky to pilot Unegbu and his team into the cabin of Igbo USA leadership. Thus, the argument to not just cede the slot to Unegbu centered on his friend Charles Chikezie. Ken Igwe, they agued, had to finish the battle and so his second term began with the loss of some reliable friends, formation of caretaker committee by rebellious groups and enemies of the Igbo community, registration of parallel groups culminating in the one that now answers "Igbo Union," a front for a splinter WIC led by one Chibuzo Onwuchekwe who refused to step down after his term ended in 2008.
With Ken Igbwe’s second term finally over and the community fractured by personal divides, business interests, and friendships, a certain non-ideological Ifeanyi Uwaomah ran on the platform of reforming Igbo USA, reintegrating the runaway groups, and offering more substance. So far much of his efforts have not been able to convince the diehards, but Uwaomah and his administration remain optimistic. If we are to judge by the events that occurred at the 2009 Igbo Day, it is fair to say that Uwaoma and his cabinet have started on a strong footing. At the inception of his administration he had called on the bartered membership of the organization that just emerged from a six-year brutal war, telling them to think outside of the box, that his administration may have to be the last to deal with elections. He wanted a situation where the Igbo USA mantra will be partnership; the states own Igbo USA and, therefore, should be running it, he said. He proposed a platform where the presidents of the affiliate associations will be the directors of Igbo USA and will choose among themselves who to chair the body or in a rotating fashion.
On the Igbo Day celebrations, Uwaomah opined that the idea of doing Igbo Day in April soon after the emergence of a new administration is too cumbersome; there is simply no time for the new administration to plan anything. He also challenged the affiliate states through their representatives to come up with a plan if they wanted to have an Igbo Day. The first line of action was to agree or disagree to have Igbo Day; indeed, it was his first official vote call which, after debates for and against, the majority voted to have Igbo Day in 2009. The second phase was whether to change the original day of having Igbo Day in April or later date to which the members voted on a later date picking August as new date to give time for preparation. With those conquered, he set out to form committees and called on states to take it and run, and they did.
The 2009 Igbo Day was billed as "Grand Finale." The idea was to make it the last party of the party season around the tri- state, to have all the state and local associations wrap up their events and then Igbo USA as the daddy of them all will wrap it up with a thank-you bang for the celebrations of 2009 summer. I must say it was indeed a big bang.
All the affiliate states provided food for which the state is mostly identified and also state-based cultural and or contemporary dances as performed by second-generation Igbo-Americans. All the cultural performances drew loud applauses from the audience, but the Abia cultural Ohafia War Dance with its colorful traditional regalia drew quite an attentions as women young and old filed around mesmerized by the muscular built young men performing the Ohafia r dance drenched in Nzu and clutching with their jaw a single palm frond. Nnukwu Mmanwu (Big Masquerade) from Anambra threw the audience in ecstasy; it was a big masquerade indeed and had to be carefully guarded inside and out of the hall to avoid shattering the lighting fixtures. The Mmanwu indeed was possessed as it performed its mystical dances and acts, drum beaters and trumpeters, noticeably Chris Moghalu, took the exhibition to the spirit world. The Mmanwu thrilled second-generation Igbo-American, our Diaspora children, to something they will never forget for many years to come.
The other highlight of the occasion was the appearance of the Chairman of World Igbo Congress, who arrived all the way from Atlanta, GA. Members of Igbo USA NJ Inc, the presidents of the affiliate organizations, and invited guests gave him a rousing ovation and welcome. He became an instant celebrity as many trooped to take photo ops with this energetic man who says very little but carries a very big stick. What can I say without mentioning our own MOE? With him, you know you are covered. He kept the audience very focused as the senior MC of the event; he came with his own documentary of Igbo ancient and modern history of Igbo nation, which was projected on the screen for all to watch all night as an exposition of the past, present and future. He was also responsible for the elegant Igbo Day journal that was handed to everyone who needed one at the event.
MOE couldn’t end the day without giving you something to take home; when our own Mike Unegbu, alias Okeosisi, arrived and wanted to thank the audience, MOE quipped, “You know they say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but with Mike, I can judge a book by its cover!” Continuing, he said: “I am going to give my friend the mike to talk to you and I know, since Loolo Promise Unegbu is on his side ……”
Mike Unegbu picking up the mike electrified the audience when he made a whopping donation to Igbo-USA and telling the audience, “This is our house, and agaracha-must-come-back. I have been to the other side (referring to Igbo Union fronted by the rebellious group loyal to Onwuchekwe-splinter WIC) ; all I can see there is bitterness.”
Here at Igbo USA, NJ, Inc, all we ask for is fairness, honesty, and unity of purpose. And so with 2009 Igbo Day as successful as it came, Igbo-USA has once again regained the glory it fostered in the 90s.
© Cornelius Akubueze
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